I originally drafted this for my church magazine back in the middle of April and I was delighted to say that there were butterflies fluttering around the garden in the exceptionally warm spring weather. On that particular day I spotted Brimstone, Holly Blue, White and a Peacock. Today I’ve been able to spot a Small White, Holly Blue again and Speckled Wood. I am truly grateful to see this activity as the picture nationally in terms of butterfly numbers is rather depressing. The Butterfly Conservation charity regarded the summer of 2021 as one of the worst on record. If you think back, last spring had a long cold spell which put everything back by a couple of weeks which can’t have helped.
Seeing a butterfly in the garden on one of the first warm days of the year always gives me a little thrill. It’s real sign that spring is just around the corner, but there’s more to butterflies than their delightful colours and a little bit of seasonal joy. Butterflies are an indicator of the health of our environment and are also an important pollinator. It’s easy to focus on bees as pollinators but, see a butterfly perched on a flower probing for nectar, and you’re quickly reminded of their importance.
I’m no expert when it comes to butterflies and I had to look up how many species we have in the UK. Apparently it’s 59, two of which are regular migrants. The migrants are the Painted Lady and Clouded Yellow. I do remember seeing several Painted Ladies in the garden one summer when there was a huge migration and it made headline news. When I say that I’m no expert, I really mean it. I think I can identify about ten species of butterfly and I’m afraid to say that when it comes to moths my knowledge is non-existent! I find butterflies and moths surprisingly hard to identify. I have a book that groups them by colour but I can often find myself in the ‘blue’ section, only to discover that they book considers the butterfly to be ‘white’. It is not helpful! You can also get rather distracted by names in the process too. After all, who wouldn’t want to come across a Dingy Skipper!
The beauty of butterflies is that you really don’t need a garden to appreciate them. A walk in your local park on a summer’s day is definitely enhanced by butterflies. If you venture into one of our wilder, larger local spaces such as Bushy or Richmond parks, you are also likely to see species that might otherwise not turn up in your garden. Two summer’s ago I finally worked out what a Small Skipper was courtesy of a walk in Bushy when they seemed to be everywhere. Crane Park is also an excellent spot for a walk with butterflies. I saw one of my first Jersey Tiger moths in Crane during the summer of 2020. They adore nettles and there are plenty of those in Crane Park!
If you do have a garden, or even a balcony, you can help our butterflies by planting pollinator friendly plants. Back in 2011, the RHS launched a scheme which is now called ‘Perfect for Pollinators’ and enabled growers to label certain plants with the bee symbol so that gardeners can identify wildlife friendly plants. Perfect for Pollinators may have a bee as its symbol but it is targeted at all pollinators – bees, hoverflies and butterflies. Most flowering plants listed here will have single flowers as these are easier for pollinators to access but it will also include plants that are known to be rich in nectar and pollen. I hope it goes without saying but if you want a butterfly-friendly garden, you will need to ditch the pesticides and you may also have to be a little less tidy. Enabling your grass to grow a little longer encourages wildflowers which are good sources of nectar. You don’t need to go as far as ploughing up the lawn and sowing a wildflower meadow, even though they can be very beautiful.
As is often the case when writing these articles, it’s made me list the butterflies I regularly see in our garden. I’m pleased to say the list includes Large White, Small White, Peacock, Brimstone, Speckled Wood, Gatekeeper, Holly Blue, Red Admiral, Small Tortoiseshell, Comma, Orange Tip and an occasional Jersey Tiger. I think that’s probably the limit of what we’re likely to attract.
Last June we spent a week in Dorset. Three things really stood out for me. Firstly, Dorset County Council has a conservation project of verge trials which meant that all the main roads we drove along were lined with an astonishing display of wildflowers. It was really stunning. Secondly, we walked around a sculpture trail in a disused quarry where there were butterflies everywhere, and I mean everywhere! I don’t know when I’ve seen so many. In particular, we kept seeing large white ones with lots of spots which I have since learned is the Marbled White. Thirdly, we walked a small stretch of the South-West Coastal Trail near Osmington Mills where again we were accompanied by dozens and dozens of butterflies. All of this added up to the feeling that we were in an area that truly values its wildlife and biodiversity.